It’s International Day of Yoga and I’m a yoga teacher – but I won’t be celebrating like everyone else

Yoga is an intricate and holistic practice, but it has been simplified, distorted and morphed into a shiny lifestyle, now polished and cleansed beyond recognition

Nadia Gilani
Tuesday 21 June 2022 17:07
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Thousands attend yoga session

Thousands of yoga fans, fitness professionals and activewear ambassadors will take to social media right now – on International Day of Yoga (IDY) – to pose for (and post) pictures of themselves performing yoga postures, together with #liveyourbestlife hashtags.

Every year it’s the same. It’s true that many of the posts will include captions about how yoga has made life more bearable. The same has been true for me as someone who has practised yoga in some shape or form in the 25 years since I first stepped on a mat. But this celebration of modern yoga is at odds with the ethics of what the practice was meant to be about. It’s so hard to watch. I usually turn my phone off and wait for it to go away.

The world is riddled with binaries – and the same is now happening to yoga. Yoga is an intricate and holistic practice, but it has been simplified, distorted and morphed into a shiny lifestyle, now polished and cleansed beyond recognition.

Practising yoga isn’t only about #selfcare or having a healthy body. It’s about moral conduct and discipline. The crazy postures many of us spend so much time doing come attached to a philosophy that gives meaning and purpose to the lives of longstanding practitioners. It’s true that yoga is a joy, but it’s not the kind the wellness industry is selling.

The aspirational marketing telegraphed by yoga studios, activewear brands and social media users featuring pictures of permanently happy, serene and bendy bodies doing handstands on beaches has never been my reality. It’s also far from what the 5,000-10,000 year old ancient Indian practice was meant to be about: self-inquiry, mediation and ultimately reaching enlightenment.

I’m not suggesting yoga should be practised exactly as it was in ancient times – I certainly don’t. I live in the modern world and my own practice has to accommodate that. But the wellness narrative that yoga has got itself wrapped up in has divorced the practice from its roots.

Cultural appropriation is what happens next. This is the mis-use of the word “namaste” on your t-shirt, it’s tattoos of Sanskrit and Hindu gods and bindis at wellness festivals. It’s plant-based diets, turmeric lattes and bum-sculpting activewear. This is modern yoga, yes – but it definitely shouldn’t be.

I was 16 when I started practising yoga, in the 1990s when it wasn’t cool or fashionable. Now, yoga is mainstream – making it available to more people (which is great), but the fact that it has been whitewashed and repackaged in “love and light” platitudes and slogans is a big problem for everyone. The dark origins of International Day of Yoga form part of that.

IDY was introduced by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the United Nations General Assembly in 2014; presumably as a way of reclaiming yoga as an Indian practice. According to the United Nations website, its aims are to “raise awareness worldwide of the many benefits of practising yoga”.

The trouble is, Modi’s time in office has seen the rise of Hindutva, a right-wing, essentially fundamentalist movement that condones the persecution of Musilms – and indeed anyone who isn’t Hindu. Modi’s nationalism makes it convenient for him to claim yoga as Indian – and therefore Hindu – as a way for him to push his ideology, with catastrophic consequences. Who can honestly get behind a day linked with a man behind that?

I’d find it easier to support IDY if it was about reflecting on the message and spirit of yoga and its core ethos of love, compassion and understanding, which are what’s needed most in the world. The spirit of the practice isn’t in what we wear or what postures we can do.

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For me, it’s in the mental effort it takes to get on my mat on days I don’t want to. It’s in the sweat and determination of practising postures (for years, sometimes) until my body is willing to open up. It’s thinking about the philosophical tenets of ahimsa (non-violence) and apariagraha (non-greed) which I view as calls to action.

I’m inspired by ahimsa, which invites ways to put our yoga practice to work by standing up for what’s right and for the freedom of people. “Non-greed”, for me, means living in a way that ensures we are aware of the impact our actions have on others. There are so many other principles to learn from through yoga – which the practice in its current incarnation fails to offer.

It’s time the billion-dollar business of the wellness industry took a hard look at itself. That means businesses, teachers, and practitioners engaging in uncomfortable conversations about what lies beneath yoga’s airbrushed aesthetic.

Yoga isn’t about love and light, it’s about being a decent human being. Self-care can’t be where it ends. This practice teaches us to think about how we’re taking care of the world and everyone in it. This is why Modi’s reclamation of yoga on days like IDY isn’t for me – and is best avoided.

Nadia Gilani is a yoga teacher and author of The Yoga Manifesto

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